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Two weeks later, the MFT and MPS Board are still hiding

The public has been shut out. We all should demand for both parties to open contract negotiations again.

Chris StewartChris Stewart

It’s been 14 days since Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, moved teachers’ contract negotiations out of public view.

Since then?

Radio silence and undemocratic secrecy.

We can only imagine why a union president would shut the public out. Sure, the public can be a pain, but then again, the public pays the mortgage.

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We also can’t imagine why a school board elected on fuzzy campaign promises of “collaboration” and “relationships” is mute about what it is  attempting to accomplish on a $240 million annual contract that makes up 50 percent of the district’s total budget and directly controls who is teaching in the classroom. If you look at the MPS web page from previous negotiation cycles you will see that the board and administration had enough respect for parents and community members to post updates, letters, background information, district data, charts, graphs and very specific negotiation goals.

Today’s board: not so much. Like a train that never arrives, the “meeting minutes” have been “coming” for months.

From the beginning, the Contract for Student Achievement has advocated for open and transparent negotiations. It’s a proven idea that government operates better when it respects the people it serves.

Too much is at stake

As parents, concerned citizens, and taxpayers, we feel obligated to be participatory rather than apathetic about our schools. These are our schools, our kids, and it’s our future. We are collectively responsible for the success and failure of all our civic institutions, but few of them are in as much trouble as public education.

There is simply too much at stake for us to accept that the largest investment made into the academic well-being of children should be done out of public view and without any public voice. We don’t have to share the same views, but we should share common information so we can be informed citizens in a participatory process.

The truth is, it is somewhat understandable that these negotiating parties would prefer an ignorant public to an informed one. Both sides have something to hide.

Before the MFT took the negotiations into hiding, we commented that the MPS board’s proposal was too narrow. It is clearly asking for too little and risking getting even less. By asking for mild changes in just 16 so-called “high-priority schools” it is endangering the rest of the district ecosystem. All schools are high-priority, and when you protect a handful of schools from arcane teacher-placement rules it virtually ensures other schools will be negatively impacted.

Then again, you’ve already lost with a board that has tied up all its social capital in the naive notion that the serious problems with the teachers’ contract could be solved with cheery platitudes about cooperation rather than nuts-n-bolts substantial change.

Same old MFT posture

On the other side of the table, we see the same old recalcitrant MFT posture. For all the airy self-congratulatory claims to progressivism, this is your grandmother’s union. Listen through the smiley faces and you will hear an endless stream of gripes and petulant expressions of alleged victimization. The martyr protocols in these negotiations are tired, but unceasing. There have been numerous plastic attempts to stencil the word “collaboration” on all of its cathartic obstructionism, but we can see from its need to hide from the public (and its members) that the MFT is hardly “collaborating” with anything resembling real reform.

Why should it?

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The truth is there is no incentive for MFT’s people to agree to anything substantive. They have the contract they want. Their worst performing (but loyal) members are well protected from accountability. They have weakened the district’s managerial prerogative in almost every way possible. And, they have a committee for darn near every district function that allows them to slow the speed of decision-making.

We have allowed them all, the MPS board and MFT, to hide from us the details of do-nothing, faux reforms that will slow change and put us on the hook for a contract costing more than $240 million in taxpayer funds. We have allowed them to talk about community engagement out of one side of their mouths, while supporting closed government out the other side.

We all should demand for both parties to open the negotiations again.

Chris Stewart is a former member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and he currently leads Action For Equity, a grass-roots campaign for innovation in education and family policy. He is a lead organizer for the Contract for Student Achievement.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices commentary, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.